When is the last time you saw a credit card company write a letter like this?
Dear Valued Customer,
How are you? We heard that you’re going through a tough time at work, and your kid needed emergency surgery last month. We understand that the price of food and gas has gone up, and it’s pretty impossible to live without that stuff, right? If you can swing it, you do owe us some money. Honestly, couple thousand dollars is basically a drop in the bucket to us, so if you can’t pay us back this year, we’ll just call it off and let you go on living your life. If you need any advice about living on a tight budget without going into debt, just call us, and we’ll see what we can do about getting you a solid financial education and a living-wage job. Keep in touch!
Your Credit Card Company
Nope. Not happening in this lifetime. A letter like this might be tough for you to ignore, but many real-world debt collection notices go straight in the trash, and phone calls go ignored. Once the debt has changed hands to a debt collector like Midland Funding or Portfolio Recovery, you’re probably even more confused. And a notice from the sheriff that you’re expected in court for a debt you’ve been unable to pay all along is tough to open, much less answer. So you ignore that, too.
That’s where my pro bono spring break work at Pine Tree Legal Assistance came in. We investigated why people don’t show up to small claims court to face the debt collection agencies that have been hounding them for months or years. While the answer seems pretty obvious (fear, confusion, dread), it’s part of a larger, tougher issue. It involves complex transactions with millions of dollars in “junk debt” bought by a few large companies, which then pursue these lawsuits nationwide. Then, they win. Almost all the time — and in large part, it’s because people who owe money just don’t show up.
If you’re a person with a credit card debt of less than $6,000 in Maine, you’re usually sued in small claims court. The rules there are much more lax than in other courts; the company demanding money from you doesn’t even have to produce witnesses or evidence that they own your debt. Generally, the only substance to their claim is an “affidavit” signed by someone you, as a debtor, have never met; they might have a summary of your debt that looks something like a credit card statement. This works for them because it’s so hard for the average pro se defendant (person representing herself) to counter even this limited evidence. But Pine Tree has a volunteer attorney with a solid approach, who’s willing to help. When he stood up on a defendant’s side, I witnessed the lawyer for the debt buyer backing down immediately to “dismiss with prejudice, your honor.”
It’s almost that simple: Don’t show, and you owe everything; show up and get help from PTLA, and your case gets dismissed.
Of course, these things change; companies that can afford to buy debts by the millions will adapt, just as they have in the foreclosure market. (This is most certainly not legal advice, readers!) But it is inspiring work, and it is filling what seems to me to be a desperate need among hundreds of indebted Mainers. Our weeklong project was one piece of a long-term, comprehensive solution to an issue that affects millions of Americans, most of whom cannot find another way out of their debt challenges.
The best part is that this is just one of the dozens of projects that the amazing PTLA staff and volunteer attorneys are devoted to working on every day. I have an impulse toward public service, but up to now I have not had a chance to spend time in an environment full of like-minded, practicing attorneys. Even though consumer debt is not my primary area of interest, they were great about making a complex problem approachable, answering questions, and providing resources that made our project possible in just a few days. And on a personal level, they were terrific about introducing me to family law attorneys, who gave me an optimistic yet realistic understanding of the type of work I hope to be doing full-time soon.
I would count myself lucky to be able to work at an agency like Pine Tree, for spring break, a fellowship, or a career.